Vaccinations and migrant worker lockdowns: COVID-19 and human rights in Singapore


How do you confront a highly contagious respiratory virus in a country with the third-highest population density in the world? Singapore, which has crafted a governmental response to COVID-19 that many across the world have lauded as a great success, may hold the answer. 

Where raw data is concerned, Singapore has managed the pandemic well, with under 287,000 cases and 838 deaths as of January 2022. While there are aspects of Singapore’s COVID response worthy of praise and emulation, there are also areas in which it has compromised its residents’ rights. 

Addressing vaccinations and vaccine inequality

A country’s protection of its residents through domestic vaccination is not sufficient to confront COVID-19. Global vaccine inequity and, more broadly, inequitable allocation of healthcare resources have been issues of concern throughout the pandemic. 

Singapore serves as an example of what WHO Director-General Tedros has called upon other countries to do—to address both global health and human rights by using its relative wealth and resource access to contribute to the global vaccination effort while securing the protection of its own population. 

In December 2020, Singapore announced its planned contribution of USD $5 million to Gavi, a global vaccine alliance partnered with and supported by the WHO, Unicef, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with other organizations. By October 2021, it also contributed USD $7.9 million in medical supplies to a stockpiling effort by ASEAN, and donated vaccines to other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Brunei. 

Failure to commit to human rights

As successful as some aspects of Singapore’s COVID-19 response may have been, we cannot ignore areas in which human rights have been overlooked or violated. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have long called on Singapore to make commitments to binding human rights documents such as the ICCPR and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families (ICPRMWF) and eliminate abusive laws, but the country has remained resistant to change. Although Singapore’s failure to adhere to human rights norms means that it isn’t bound to the requirements of a given treaty, it can and should still be held accountable for its actions. In this pandemic era, where crucial issues of privacy, censorship, freedom, and disease often overlap, other UN countries must continue to pressure Singapore on these topics and ensure the protection of human rights.

Insufficient protection of migrant workers’ rights 

One of the populations that is most vulnerable to Singapore’s failure to commit to COVID-related human rights is its sizable community of migrant workers, largely men from India, Bangladesh, and China. Although these workers make massive contributions to Singapore’s infrastructure by building roads, apartments, and bridges, they are most likely to live in crowded dormitories with poor ventilation—unsanitary conditions which are made even more hazardous by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It is exactly because of these conditions that COVID was able to spread so easily among migrant workers living in dormitories in early April 2020, an event that led the Singaporean government to put those dormitories under full lockdown. 

As of September 2021, migrant workers accounted for 74% of all COVID-19 cases in the country, though they make up only 5% of Singapore’s total population. At the same time, over 90% of workers living in dormitories are fully vaccinated, and some have argued that there are no longer viable grounds for keeping them under lockdown. 

Not only do these conditions continue to pose threats to workers’ physical health by keeping them in overcrowded spaces, but they also can have a profound effect on mental health as well. Health groups have reported higher rates of depression and anxiety among migrant workers in Singapore related to their long-term isolation.

While other Singaporean residents have gradually been able to enjoy more freedoms such as ordering takeout, exercising maskless in neighborhood parks, and entering malls and movie theaters, migrant workers have more or less remained confined to their overcrowded living quarters for the better part of a year. 

An anonymous Singaporean resident worries about the implications this differential treatment will have on tensions among the Singapore public: “Honestly, it just serves to worsen our relations with migrant workers, who actually help build most of our infrastructure, and also… that mistrust of them might seep into our own community, with more random racist attacks against Singaporean Indians.” 

For the migrant workers who are able to see these changes in lifestyle happening around them but are unable to partake themselves, this just serves to exacerbate their feelings of isolation and despair. For Singaporeans who are slowly returning back to normal, the continued cloistering of migrant workers could generate feelings of fear towards them, resulting in further marginalization. 

If there are indeed no longer medical or public health grounds for keeping these workers under lockdown, the Singaporean government is guilty of violating several basic human rights under the UDHR. Most notably, these actions are in violation of Article 13, the freedom of movement within the borders of one’s country, as well as Article 25, the right to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well-being.

There are several lessons to be learned from Singapore’s COVID-19 response in what it has done and what it has failed to do. While other nations should follow its lead on furthering the well-being of the international community in conjunction with a focus on domestic vaccinations, COVID-19 has also served to exacerbate existing inequalities and tensions, turning already unfair conditions for migrant workers into very real threats of disease, hopelessness, and even death. 

This pandemic will not be the last of its kind, so it is even more imperative for Singapore to commit to protecting human rights. Singapore must sign treaties such as the ICCPR and the ICPRMWF and ensure better living and working conditions for its migrant worker residents. Singapore may not adhere to these demands of their own free will, in which case the responsibility will lie with the international community, especially members of the UN, to apply diplomatic pressure when necessary.